Oct 23, 2012

What can Army of Darkness teach you about writing?

Army of Darkness is the final installment of a cinematic trilogy, The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi. Its original script was a measly 43 pages.

The story so far: A group of friends drive up to a remote cabin in Tennessee, owned by somebody's uncle. Said uncle owned a copy of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis*, a Sumerian** book that contains demon-summoning incantations, which he conveniently left behind in the woodland cabin along with an audio recording of the dangerous incantations, because why not. 
*Named differently in the first Evil Dead.
**And Pig Latin is actual Latin.

The five friends play the recording. Demonic forces erupt from the ground, from the night fog. People levitate, stab each other with pencils, suffer the arrows and slings of animate trees. By the end of the movie one man is left standing: his name is Ash.


Ash then spends the entirety of Evil Dead II in the cabin where all his friends died, clinging to his sanity as he fights off a number of supernatural threats, including his own severed hand. Ash's final reward is getting sucked into a time vortex that plops him down on old Europe in the 1300s (by his own estimation).

Which leads us to Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness.

Army consecrates Ash Williams as the ultimate badass, monster killer, king of sass. While in chains, he tells a defeated lord, "Well, hello, Mr. Fancy-pants! I got news for you, pal, you ain't leadin' but two things right now, Jack and Shit--and Jack left town."

So, what can Army of Darkness teach you about writing a novel, story or play?


Stuck in the Middle Ages, Ash must recover the Necronomicon, for only that book has the power to send him back to the twentieth century. Ash will find the book in a cemetery -- but he can only take it once he's said the magic words, "Klaatu verata nicto." To avert disaster or... or something. 

Ash can't remember the last word, "nicto," so he mumbles and snarls and makes off with the book anyway. As a consequence, the dead rise in voluminous numbers to conquer the living.

Heroism: It's never black and white. Actions have consequences, and not all situations are win-win. Ash is hailed as the Chosen One of prophecy but he doesn't really care for the role. There's a fine line between hero and glory hound, a world of ambiguity you can explore in your writing.

Memorable heroes come in a variety of flavors. Ash Williams has got a chainsaw hand, plus the personality to match. Nor should we forget his trusty boomstick, a double-barreled Remington, "S-Mart's top of the line." Ash starts out arrogant and boastful, calling people "primitive screwheads" -- he's so much better than everybody else around him. Ash simply doesn't take anybody seriously. His impatience and carelessness set dramatic events in motion.

However. Feeling pangs of guilt over his botched recovery of the Necronomicon, which led to an inconvenient resurrection of pissed-off, skeletonized people and other unpleasant creatures, Ash decided not to go back to the 20th century right away. Instead, he'd stay and fight.

I suspect this decision had much to do with the fact that his budding love interest, Sheila, was abducted by a flying demon while Ash stood by, unable to do anything about it.


Sheila, played by the lovely Embeth Davidtz, provides the sugar coating on this movie. Her role is rather small -- she doesn't say much -- but she's there at pivotal moments and then, remember, abduction by flying demon. That's a turning point for Ash. He's forced to accept responsibility and answer the hero's call. Finally his connection with the people of 1300 AD becomes real to him.

Sheila provides Ash with an anchor, an emotional focus. It's clear that the soldiers, wise men and lordlings don't mean much to him, and that he sees them as stereotypes. Sheila also provides the stakes. If not for her, Ash could simply walk away. There wouldn't be a story to tell.

I find it problematic that 'evil' Sheila is more of a fighter than 'good' Sheila, and also that her character's journey is somewhat nonsensical but, if you stretch things a little, you could read it this way: Sheila's two sides represent angel/fallen angel, and her return to goodness is only metaphorical. She does not in fact survive her fall from the battlements, and at the end only Ash can see her. Redeemed, but no longer among the living. And in her death she has redeemed Ash also. Well... sort of. Because Ash prefers badassery to benediction.

As he says to Evil Ash, "Good -- bad -- I'm the one with the shotgun."


That's right, Ash must fight a dark version of himself. Clearly, Evil Ash embodies the hero's reckless, selfish nature. Both want the Necronomicon for their own ends*. Both want the girl.
*Though seriously, can the Necronomicon be used for good works? There's the rub.

Evil Ash attains to the fullness of his power when he erupts from his shallow grave and assumes command over the legion of skeletons and zombies Good Ash has unwillingly summoned. Dark Overlord Ash lets his anonymous boneheads do most of the fighting, making a beeline for the Necronomicon, which the mortals had secreted away within castle walls. Good and Evil Ash cross paths once more, and the final confrontation begins. This time, Ash must make sure that his wicked counterpart is, how shall I put it, terminally incapacitated.

Maybe there's a hidden lesson in Army of Darkness: Your greatest battle is against your darkest impulses, and there's no greater victory than conquering yourself.


Ash works in Mexico.

Necropizza Ex Mortis, anyone?
via Geek is Awesome

One of the covers to the Evil Dead
Necronomicon. One of these babies appears
as a prop in Jason Goes to Hell.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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